by: BILLY GATES/THE PIONEER - Culver outside hitter Shealene Little spikes the ball during the Bulldogs five-set win against Kennedy on Saturday in the Tri-River Conference tournament championship game at Culver High School. Little, who had a match-high 25 kills, was named the TRC player of the year and first-team all-conference team following the match. Culver claims No. 1 seed to state playoffs in five-set tussle with Kennedy

For the first time all season, the Culver High School volleyball played five sets in a match.

The Bulldogs dropped the first two sets to Kennedy in the Tri-River Conference tournament championship match Saturday in Culver, but then rallied to win the next three to claim the conference’s top seed to the state playoffs.

The Bulldogs, who had already won the TRC regular season title with a 16-0 record, were pushed to the brink by the Trojans, and while it was pretty nerve-wracking, Culver coach Randi Viggiano said it was good to get challenged before the state playoffs.

“We talked about it afterward that is was good we went five sets here,” Viggiano said. “We needed to work under pressure situations, because the next two weeks, everyone we face is going to give us their best game.”

Following the first two sets, which Kennedy won 25-18, 25-23, Viggiano said she didn’t have to say a word in the huddle between the second and third sets. The team knew what they had to do, and they talked about it amongst themselves and went to go get the win.

“The girls hate losing; they hate it so much,” Viggiano said. “As soon as the second set was over, they were all in the huddle talking about what they needed to do and how they needed to get fired up.”

Culver senior Gabrielle Alley, who had 20 kills for the Bulldogs, said the chatter between the second and third sets centered around the team’s energy level and playing the type of game they had played the entire season.

by: BILLY GATES/THE PIONEER - Culver's Hannah Lewis (left) and Andrea Retano (right) attempt to block the attack of Kennedy's Lakin Susee during Saturdays Tri-River Conference tournament championship match.“We needed to get back to what our strong suits are: serve receive, flying all over the place with hustle, taking big swings and getting excited to keep the momentum on our side.”

Alley said the team’s conditioning helped them tremendously late in the the match, and by the way the Bulldogs played, it was pretty obvious she was spot on with her assessment.

Culver went on to take the next three sets 25-19, 25-16, 15-5, but it was about halfway through the second set when Viggiano said she could see the tide starting to turn in her team’s favor.

That was despite an error in the lineup that she took complete blame for.

“I put both my outside hitters in the front row at the same time,” she said. “But we did a really great job adapting to that to get the set back to 25-23. Instead of getting their tails kicked a little bit, they battled through it and gave them some momentum going into that third set.”

Once into the third set, things started to click for the Bulldogs. The passing as serve receive was more crisp, the sets were on point and the Culver hitters were taking aggressive swings in the attack.

Culver led 19-15 in the set, and following a Kennedy timeout, junior outside hitter Shealene Little blasted a kill with such ferocity it served as a statement it seemed, and the Kennedy front line backed off the net a considerable amount for the rest of the match.

Little, the conference’s player of the year for the second year in a row, ended the match with 25 kills.

Sophomore libero Emma Hoke ended the third set with one of her three aces.

In the fourth set, Kennedy again tried to quell a Culver run with a timeout. At 16-11, sophomore setter Hannah Lewis delivered a crucial ace straight out of the timeout to give the Bulldogs a shot of energy.

The Bulldogs finished out the frame with a 9-5 advantage, and an Alley kill as an exclamation point, as the match moved to the fifth set.

Culver jumped out to an 8-2 lead after an Alley ace, and then finished the match to claim the tournament title.

Following the match, five Bulldogs were named to the all-Tri-River Conference team.

Along with Little’s player of the year honors, she and Alley were named to the first team. Lewis, Hoke and Lynze Schonneker were all named to the second team.

Viggiano picked up her second straight coach of the year honor, as well.

Defensively, Alley led the way with 18 digs, followed by Hoke’s 17. Little notched 12 digs to help out.

Schonneker had one of her better nights offensively with seven kills, and junior middle blocker Andrea Retano had three kills.

When Alley and Little were struggling early on in the match, relatively speaking, the supporting cast of players kept up with their steady play and helped the Bulldogs weather the storm while their two big guns got back on track.

“I think part of being a team is being able to trust that your teammates will have your back,” Alley said. “We’ve got players that are really versatile, and we’ve always had a great team chemistry.”

The Mountain View Conference was the only conference that had playoff games left to be played on Tuesday, which is when the power ratings freeze and playoff matches can be announced. Culver will definitely host a match in the first round of the Class 2A playoffs on Saturday, they just don’t know who it will be against.

Whoever ends up drawing the Bulldogs to open the playoffs better be prepared to play the best match they’ve played all season, or else they’ll be preparing for winter sports.

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